[This is a long post, so I’ll keep the intro brief. Playground basketball gained a certain mystique in the 1960s, and this article, published in the magazine Dick Vitale’s Pro/College Basketball Annual, 1990-91, picks up the narrative roughly 20 years later.
The article is in no way definitive and has some factual issues here and there. But it offers a nice historical overview of the asphalt game, running through New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Each installment was farmed out to a presumed in-the-know reporter, and I’ll list the bylines further down. But the article starts with some sociology, which comes from John Velenti, then with Newsday. Valenti was just about to publish his book, Swee’pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence, and Basketball.]
He was just a kid, too young to be thrown in the back of a police cruiser with his hands constricted by cold metal cuffs. Arrested, he had all the terrible thoughts racing through his brain—thinking what all this meant to his future, the one that was supposed to be filled with promise, potential.
Lionel Simmons was scared. And for good reason. He had seen too many friends and relatives take this route before, trading a future of possibilities for a present of realities—often losing in the long run.
It is a scene often repeated in the cities across America. Fortunately, Lionel Simmons, then a boy of maybe 13 and detained for the minor violation of breaking curfew, had basketball . . . and basketball gave him life. It gave him incentive, gave him structure, made him think about himself in a positive way. It gave him a future. While several of his friends went on to find trouble, Lionel Simmons and several of his other friends from that neighborhood of South Philadelphia—friends like Bo Kimble, Brian Shorter, Pooh Richardson, and the late Hank Gathers—went on to find success in both sport and education, to find success in society.
“I watched too many people, not only my brothers, choose the other way, the wrong road,” said Simmons, who was voted the NCAA Division I Player of the Year last season as a senior at La Salle, while one of his brothers remained incarcerated. “I realized that you have to pick good friends, have to be aware of what is going on around you all the time. But, you see, I had a way out. I had sports. I had basketball.
Ask a kid on any playground—from the inner cities to the most remote farmlands—what the sport of basketball is really all about, and, if he can express his feelings, he likely will tell you in one word: order.
Just as governments have their social and political systems, basketball has its own. It’s called the law of the playgrounds, and it holds true whether the game is one-on-one, three-on-three, or five-on-five. It is as democratic as a game of H-O-R-S-E. And it’s brutally fair. On the grimy, litter-flecked courts of America’s inner cities, the best play. The best survive. The best go on with the game, and, if they’re lucky, earn a chance to go on with their lives.
Out of the parks and off the asphalt courts, even the most-talented players—New York City legends like Earl (The Goat) Manigault, Herman (Helicopter) Knowings, James (Fly) Williams, and Lloyd (Swee’ pea) Daniels; the Chicago legends like Art (Big Art) Hicks and Lamarr Mondane; the California cools like Skyles (Sky High) Runser, Clifford Allen, and Chris Mills—may be fragile, finding only mixed success or even failure. But basketball gives even the weakest a chance for success. In a turbulent world of violence that pervades everyday life in the inner cities—murder, muggings, and other mayhem—playground basketball is, in its purest form, an oasis of sanity.
Asked the difference between success and failure on the streets, a former street player named Sonny Johnson said: “Basketball. One out of every hundred kids (in the juvenile justice system has) the skills to play college ball. But they have no goals, no expectations. On the playgrounds, the number of kids who can go on to college ball is probably one out of 10. They have the tools to get by that street element. Basketball in the city, in particular, keeps a majority of kids out of jail. They have an alternative. They have a future.”
That isn’t to say, of course, that the game is not sometimes exploited. In July 1988, on an asphalt court in Queens officially called Baisley Park, but known to the underworld as “The Sniff Bowl,” a referee named Greg Vaughn made a bad call at a crucial moment in a game allegedly run by drug dealers, who took wagers on the game’s outcome. Incensed with the call, a player or a bystander—no one seemed sure which—struck Vaughn in the face. His head hit the court and, five days later, he died.
Basketball tends to be a reflection of society. In the 1950s and 1960s, long before the masses knew there was a heroin problem, fans in the inner-city parks of America knew. Basketball players were dwindling in number because they were off shooting up. Before America was introduced to the crack epidemic, fans in the parks knew about it for the same reason.
To better understand the influence of The City Game, as it is known, consider what happened to three players once recruited by UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian:
Cliff Allen, a 6-foot-10 center from California. He didn’t learn the game until his teens, too late to save him from a life of crime. Allen was recruited out of a youth correctional facility, blew a scholarship to UNLV, found himself in jail, and, while out on bail, killed a man in Florida. Now he’s doing 45 years to life.
Lloyd Daniels, a 6-foot-8 point guard from Queens. Daniels often has been called the best player from New York City since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Daniels, it once was said, could do everything with a basketball except autograph it. The sport kept him in school, but it couldn’t make him learn. He was arrested in a televised drug bust while at UNLV—the school still is under investigation by the NCAA for its recruitment of Daniels—and, later, was shot three times in an alleged drug deal in Queens.
Ricky Sobers. He came out of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he believed he was so talented that he never played on his high school team—they weren’t good enough for him, he said. Basketball gave him a chance at an education, and he made good, earning his degree at UNLV, then going on to a lucrative career in the NBA. He is now an announcer.
Every program, every city, and every state has its share of successes and failures. Lamarr Mondane, a guard most people figured to be a fictional creation when those Reebok “Legends” ads began to appear a few years back—remember Lamarr Mondane, the man who could rain 30-foot jumpers?—is a very real player in Chicago, known on the streets and in the parks for his exploits with a basketball. So, what if his game wasn’t good enough to earn him a shot at a major-college program? See, on those hardened courts, time is measured by a move or moment, a play that steals a spotlight for an instant—and, in the process, gains a man a lifetime of celebrity.
Folks in Harlem still recall how The Goat, Earl Manigault, dunked 36 times in a row—backward!—to win a bet. They remember how a player named Jackie Jackson scooped a quarter off the top of the backboard, how Lloyd Daniels dished off for 24 assists, how the man they called “Helicopter” once hovered in the air over the lane to draw a three-second violation, how Pee Wee Kirkland turned down a contract from the Chicago Bulls, because he could earn more money on the streets.
They remember how a guard named The Terminator scored 107 points in a game, as well as how Lloyd Free became known as “World” for his moves in a place called 55 Park. And, they remember that the best players weren’t always the ones who made it; that guys like John Salley and Mark Jackson and Bernard King may not be as good as some who never escaped the playgrounds and parks.
As Manigault, who forfeited his career to a heroin habit, once said: “The city can take it all away. For every Michael Jordan, there’s an Earl Manigault. We all can’t make it. Somebody has to fail. I was the one.”
For those weaned on New York City basketball, the most-exciting hoops haven’t taken place in the NBA Finals, they’ve happened on the playgrounds of the Big Apple. Long before The Michael ever dreamt of taking flight, Dr. J. was astounding legions of Rucker Pro League votaries back in the summer of 1971 with weekly rebuttals of Newtonian physics. And even before the Good Doctor, there was Jackie Jackson, The Hawk, and countless others.
In New York, playground basketball takes many forms—from choose-up to summer, spring, and fall leagues, to tournaments played on broken pavement or in dimly lit, undersized gyms, to national AAU tournaments held in air-conditioned arenas. Common to all varieties in their NYC expression, however, is a spontaneous creativity and extreme intensity. It is a game played almost from cradle to grave. Divisions in leagues and tournaments range from Biddy (12 & under) to Unlimited. Special status goes to those with “serious ups” or slithery and pole-evading forays to the hole.
Legion are those who have been accorded demigod status in Big Apple lore, including imports like Will Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Chink Scott—and even the City of Brotherly Love’s Earl Monroe, who would venture north from the Baker League for an occasional weekend appearance.
Among the native born and bred must be included both those who left their mark on the game with a wider audience and those who, for whatever reasons, will be remembered solely as heroes of the playground. The success stories are well-known: Connie Hawkins, Tiny Archibald, Julius Erving, Dick McGuire, Bernard and Albert King, Dean Meminger, Mel Davis, Phil Sellers, Fly Williams, Sidney Green, Walter Berry, Pearl Washington, Rod Strickland, and, more recently, Kenny Anderson.
Of greater interest here are those whose acts forever remain Off Broadway. Most, though not all, were saddled with self-destructive personality traits that deprived them of their proper stage. Others, however, lacked only the opportunity or, in some cases, the well-rounded game to cavort successfully in the NBA. Either way, the most legendary of those star-crossed figures include:
Earl Manigault. “The Goat,” a 6-foot guard from Ben Franklin High in the early 1960s, was surely among the most celebrated cloud-piercers for his size in Big Apple annals. Regrettably, an aversion to school and a weakness for drugs kept him from being more than just a Rucker League luminary.
Jackie Jackson. The greatest jumper in hoop history (take note, Mr. Jordan) was a 6-foot-4 forward who played at fabled Boys High, Virginia Union, and for many years with the Harlem Globetrotters. Best remembered for his many battles with Wilt and stubborn resistance to the laws of gravity. In the city, an entire mythology surrounds the High Priest of Hop.
Lloyd Daniels. As versatile and skilled a talent as you’ll find anywhere east of the Great Western Forum. Unfortunately, “Swee’ pea” appears his own worst enemy. After five high school stops in three years, brief stints in Jucoland and at UNLV, and sporadic participation in the CBA, Lloyd’s career (and life) were almost ended in May 1989 by three bullets in the chest during a drug-related incident. He’s currently attempting to rehabilitate himself and stay in the game.
Joe Hammond. A high school dropout in the late 1960s, “Dirty Red” or “The Destroyer” was a long-armed, 6-foot-4 guard with a cult following to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Frequent teammate and adversary Ron Rutledge, now an assistant coach at St. John’s, passed up the final episode of the era’s most-popular TV series, The Fugitive, back in August 1967, to watch this legend work his magic.
Hammond, was named MVP of the Rucker Pro League at the tender age of 20 and was selected by the Lakers in the NBA’s first hardship draft. But Dirty Red found the street life of Harlem too alluring to leave behind. After an absence of four years, he heralded his return to the Rucker with a 73-point explosion. The Willie Hoppe of the Hoop was probably the greatest player who never made it.
As legendary as some of the players are the playgrounds they performed on. These are among the more famous playground sites in New York City:
Rucker Park. Located in Harlem at 155th Street and 8th Avenue, across from where the mighty Polo Grounds once stood, Rucker Park played host for the last 20 years to the legendary Rucker Pro League, until the league’s recent demise. No ticket at Madison Square Garden was tougher than finding a spot with an unobstructed view in this standing-room-only park on any given weekend in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
West 4th Street. Located at West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, in the heart of Greenwich Village, this tiny caged court plays host to a popular unlimited tournament during the summer months. More important, it has served for more than 25 years as a haven to itinerant J-slingers from throughout the city.
Kennedy Center. The Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Community Center, just east of Lenox Avenue at 135thStreet, operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, has been Harlem’s leading indoor hoop shrine for more than 40 years.
St. John’s Rec Center. Located on Prospect Place between Troy and Schenectady Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant, St. John’s Rec served as the mecca of Brooklyn basketball for many years. It was the home of the St. John’s Flashes, and later the powerful Brooklyn USA program of the 1970s. Tournaments still are held, though most of the magic is gone.
108th Street. This boardwalk park in Queen’s Rockaway Beach at one time attracted most of the best white players in New York City. The local McGuire brothers (Dick and Al) were kings of the court during the glory years. Little remains but the memories.
The wilds of Chicago asphalt have been flush with the gifted, from the widely known to the neighborhood stud. The city’s playgrounds, most notably on the West and South Sides, spawned the NBA’s first Black signee, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and an array of other professionals, from neighbors Cazzie Russell and Tom Hawkins to Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, and Terry Cummings. They produced several early Harlem Globetrotters, most notably Hillary Brown, the team’s first star, and later player-coach Leon Hilliard. They have given us Lamarr “Money” Mondane, lionized in the late 1980s in a national TV commercial about sneakers.
Some of the best acts you’ve never seen happened inside various rusted fences on uneven courts, featuring a bent rim or two. That kind of ball, from the 1920s to its fading days in the diversion-filled, hardwood-court 1980s, went unchronicled, but has lived on through slang of mouth, the lore sometimes spiced with embellishment. Unreported brilliance happens when you have stylists—guys named Helicopter or Elevator or Rocket—whose games may be more suited for cement freelance than coaching chalkboards.
Chicagoans Eddie Johnson, Ken Norman, Hersey Hawkins, Maurice Cheeks, Tim Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Rickey Green, Ron Anderson, and Byron Irvin may play in the NBA, but they have nothing on lesser-known brethren in regard to playground reputation. Longtime pickup watchers say many had NBA-level ability but didn’t make it for various reasons—grades, defense, attitude, breaks, timing, drugs, whatever.
“Sure, there were better guys on the playgrounds than guys who make it in the pros,” said Art White, former St. Elizabeth High coach and the first Black referee in major college basketball.
Any list of Chicago legends should include: two star guards from the 1954 DuSable High state runner-up—“Sweet” Charlie Brown, a starter with Elgin Baylor on 1958 runner-up Seattle, and Paxton Lumpkin, later a Globetrotter; Al “Runt” Pullins and Inman Jackson, who originated the Trotters’ famed pregame warmup drill in the later 1920s; and Marshall High great George Wilson. And Chicago, like New York, has its own Helicopter—Herman Pepper, a 6-foot-1 dunker from the West Side.
“We played year-round,” Brown said. “We shoveled the snow and picked the ice off the playground, and we’d sweep the rain with brooms and play at night by streetlight.”
Because the game has moved steadily indoors during the summer, there may never be playground legends like those of yesteryear. Here, several in the know concur, are Chicago’s originals, if not finest:
Billy “The Kid” Harris. Ask a knowledgeable playground baby boomer about legends hereabouts, and Harris’ name probably will be mentioned first. He grew up on the South Side in the Robert Taylor Homes projects and, as a 6-foot-3 guard, starred at Dunbar High and Northern Illinois. After he averaged 24.1 points as a senior, the Bulls drafted him in the seventh round in 1973, but cut him. He played one season for the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors.
Now 38, he remains bitter about not making it in the pros. “I might have been the first Jordan,” Harris said. “I was the first to have the whole package. But Jordan can’t shoot with me.” His year in the ABA, he said, convinced him there are many mediocre players in the pros “who can’t play dead with a knife sticking in their back.”
He doesn’t play now, but talks a big game. His dream has died hard. Harris still refers to himself as a “legend” and “the man.” He will tell you he was dunking in grammar school, was a showman ahead of this time, use to run pros out of summer leagues, used to blow by Bulls Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan “like 40 going north,” and is a ladies man “overloaded with charisma.” “I found myself in a society that didn’t pay me for what I was born to do,” he said. “I was born to play basketball. I was a legend.”
Lamarr “Money” Mondane. Now a Chicago construction laborer, he built his reputation on the long jumper. Danny Ainge, then a Boston Celtic, had seen the Reebok commercials and, thinking the character was fictional, adopted Lamarr Mondane as his alter ego. So have others. Ainge wrote the name on his practice jersey. “I’d yell ‘Layup’ or ‘Money’ when I’d shoot a 15-footer in practice,” Ainge said. “All the guy on the team would call me Lamarr Mondane.”
The real Mondane is a 5-foot-9 gunner from the West Side and Marshall High. A late bloomer, he averaged 30 points a game at Malcolm X Junior College. Now 37, he still rains jumpers in various city leagues.
Isiah Thomas looked up to him on Saturday mornings at Columbus Park. “He was always the top pick in our games,” Thomas said. “He would pass it, but you’d pass it back because his J was better. People did call out ‘Layup’ when he pulled up from the top of the key.”
“The reason he used to shoot long jump shots is because he couldn’t make layups,” said Danny Crawford, an NBA referee who grew up with Mondane. “He had unmolested layups a few times and missed. But he’d shake and bake and hit from 35 feet.”
Art Hicks. “Big Art” was a 6-foot-5, 250-pound Charles Barkley type, vocal on the court, and prided himself on playing every position well. He learned the game at the Wells project at 37th and Vincennes, where, he says, there could be a “four-hour wait” if your team lost. He led his St. Elizabeth High team to city championships in 1956 and 1957, played at Northwestern, then at Seton Hall—where there was a point-shaving scandal—then around Chicago until the mid-1970s.
“If he wouldn’t have been in the scandal,” said John “Buck” Paul, a former high school coach and summer league coordinator, “he would have been in the class of Connie Hawkins as a player.”
Hicks’ reputation grew one day at the Marin Luther King Boys Club when, on a one-on-two break, he took off from the foul line and Dawkinsed a dunk that left the floor full of shattered glass and spectators in awe. “It was Godzilla flying through the air,” Paul, a witness, recalled.
Ralph “The Rocket” Walker. A West Sider, also called “Sky” and “Elevator,” he was a 6-foot-4 leaper who played the middle. Walker played at Orr High and St. Mary’s (Calif.) College, and was cut by Phoenix after being picked in the fifth round of the 1976 NBA draft. All he lacked was a consistent jump shot. Walker, now an Oakland policeman, also had a tryout with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks but football wasn’t his game.
Mondane recalls one Walker sky job in particular, at the Morris playground. “I threw it to him on the wing on a fastbreak, and he did the nastiest dunk I’ve ever seen,” Mondane said. “He went up, hit the ball two times on the backboard, then slammed backwards. The game stopped right then. Everybody on the playground told him to do it again, and he did.”
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. He was a 6-foot-6 hook-shot specialist who played before the jump shot. A DuSable High and Xavier (La.) star in the early 1940s, he was the NBA’s first Black signee and the first NBA player to dunk. He played eight years with the New York Knicks—his top salary was $8,000—and 16 with the Globetrotters. You could see traces of his career in his nicked-up hands: The right pinkie twisted outward and the left ring finger bent upward, having healed that way after being broken by backboards.
Clifton was a Chicago cab driver for almost 25 years—”at least the (city’s) fourth or fifth best,” he once said—once picking up former Celtics great Bill Russell at O’Hare Airport and assuring him he was happy. Clinton got his nickname at age 12 in 1939 at Carter G. Woodson playground, because of his fondness for soft drinks. His ride through life ended August 31, when he died of a heart attack at the wheel of his cab. He was 63.
Arthur Sievels. Academic woe made him a short-timer on Crane High’s great team in the early 1970s, but he was long on talent and his Cousy-type game lives on. He didn’t play college ball, but could give clinics on the behind-the-back speed dribble and sleight-of-hand passes. “Once for Crane, he came down, was dribbling in the right corner, and four (Gary, Ind. opponents) grabbed him,” John Paul said. “The next thing you know, a Crane kid is laying the ball in, and the Gary kids still think Arthur is dribbling the ball.”
There were various big-game sites. Clifton grew up four blocks from the Carter Woodson court at 48th and Michigan, a popular and safe summertime hangout for decades. In the 1930s, Blacks weren’t permitted to play with whites, so they hung out at Carter, which had a dirt and grass floor and no nets, but was one of the few places with two rims. Then Agis Bray became the first Black to play on an all-white semipro team, and playgrounds became integrated in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, the South Side playground at 71st and (now) King Drive was the site of some of the country’s best outdoor games and, thus traffic jams. College and pro stars played regularly: Cazzie Russell, members of the Bulls, sometimes legends from other cities such as Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, and Oscar Robertson.
Marillac House and Gladstone were West Side hotspots for years. Marillac has had a sloped court and bent rims, but it also has had Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, and a city-wide Playground Who’s Who at its annual summer tournament. The court, which unlike others had lights, was enclosed by an 18-foot fence and a deep ring of spectators. “Guys would be sitting around drinking wine and betting on games,” Paul said.
Summer stories abound. In 1980, at the LaGrange Youth Center outdoor tournament, Glenn “Doc” Rivers, then a high school senior just west of the city in Maywood, scored 44 points—but didn’t lead his team in scoring. Ricky Wilson, who many thought had more talent than Rivers, pumped in 66. Rivers now is an Atlanta Hawk; Wilson made the grade on the playgrounds, but not in college.
There are sad stories on the streets, and some involve the former DePaul trio of Skip Dillard, Bernard Randolph, and Teddy Grubbs. They learned on Chicago’s sandlots and played at DePaul in the early 1980s before hitting hard times, including joblessness and jail. Five years after helping DePaul win 79 of 85 games, Dillard and Randolph were still clinging to the NBA dream, but got incarceration instead.
In February 1988, Aguirre returned home to get married and to play in the NBA All-Star Game the same weekend long -time chum Randolph was arrested for stealing a car. Dillard, another West Sider, is a long way from the Delano Elementary School playground on which he learned the game. He is serving an 11-year term at a maximum-security prison in Joliet, Ill., because he robbed 15 gas stations in the summer of 1987 to feed a cocaine addiction. That same year, Grubbs was charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault for allegedly exposing himself to a clerk and pushing her into a closet.
No tale, however, is sadder than Ben Wilson’s. At 17, the 6-foot-8 Simeon High star was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 player entering his senior year in 1984. His life ended, though, after a gang member shot him on the street on the eve of the season opener. “He was the best basketball player I’ve ever seen in Chicago, not counting pros,” said Kenny McReynolds, a former DePaul the assistant. “He did stuff that was lethal.”
One of the new stars is DePaul-bound Brandon Cole, a three-point specialist from poor Ford Heights in the South suburbs, an area whose cement produced legendary sharpshooter Lloyd Batts and the more well-known Quinn Buckner. “Kids from other towns would come to play on the playground. . . Kendall Gill, Phil Henderson . . .” Cole said.
Cole returned to the playground this summer, but not regularly. “Concrete doesn’t have any give to it,” Cole said. “I’d rather play in the gym.” Which is one reason why playground players are a dwindling breed.
One rumor had him dying of an overdose. Another said he’d been hit by a train. No, insisted a third, he’d been felled by a shotgun blast.
By February 1988, at age 22, Darin “Munchy” Mason long had reigned as a Philadelphia playground basketball legend, largely because of a documented 43-inch vertical leap and the fact that he been dunking as far back as seventh grade. But the last thing Mason was prepared to receive for his flying feats was posthumous recognition.
“One day,” said Mason, “one of my old coaches came to the door with tears in his eyes. He tells my mother, ‘I’m sorry to hear about Munchy.’ My mother says, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘About him dying.’ ‘Dead? He’s not dead. He’s right there, coming down the steps.’
“See, some other guy around here named Munchy got killed. But, since I’m the more famous Munchy, and since people didn’t see me around—I don’t run the streets, hang out with riff-raff—somehow I became the dead Munchy. Once the rumor got started, it went wild.”
Munchy Mason is very much alive, thank you. He made just a pitstop in college (Saddleback JC in Mission Viejo, Calif.), zipped through a succession of unsatisfying jobs (printer, auto mechanic, carpet layer, stockboy) and now admits to having a fondness for beer. But he still plays ball, which means the quality entertainment continues to be available in the city’s Northern Liberties section, just a few fastbreaks from the downtown area.
There are three variables that, when lumped together, make Mason’s dunking repertoire particularly amazing. For one, he stands just a shade over 5-foot-11. For two, he cannot palm the ball. For three, he weighs 155 pounds, with legs even a bird would tease him about. “I don’t know where this comes from,” Mason said. “No one else in my family can jump. Just me.”
In 1984, Mason, now 25, was a third-team All-City player for Jules Mastbaum Tech. His scoring average, 26.4, was the fourth-best that year in the highly competitive Public League. His contemporaries include Pooh Richardson, Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble, Howard Evans, Michael Anderson, and Mark Stevenson, all of whom experienced tremendous college success. Some progressed to the NBA. In his own way, Munchy outfamed ‘em all.
At Mastbaum, his favorite ploy was to run the baseline behind an unsuspecting zone defense and make eye contact with the point guard. The ball would then would be lofted, high and to the side of the basket. Munchy would catch it and ram it home. A one-handed guide job. A two-hander with authority. Even some reverses, just for the sake of variation. Transition throw-downs also were a favorite.
Throughout the league, as Mason’s legend grew, fans in foreign gyms would scramble out of the stands to approach the Panthers during layup drills. “Which one’s that Munchy guy?” they’d ask. In the game’s first few minutes, they would find out anyway.
“I’ve seen some good leapers,” said Ralph “Bones” Schneider, Mastbaum’s coach for 33 seasons, “but Munchy has to rank with the best. At that size, I’ve never seen anyone better. One time against Frankford, he went in on a break. They catch him, foul him, he’s down in a heap. When I go out, he’s holding his head. Hit it on the backboard.”
Said Mason, who gained his nickname as a toddler, for always munching on candy and chips: “I’m happy I have it (leaping ability). It’s a gift. It seemed like I always played on small teams in school ball, and I always had to play forward because of that, but I don’t have any regrets. I play guard now (in independent leagues), and I kill ‘em with jumpers, too. I got 53 points in a Final Four game of a pro-am league a couple years ago. I’m almost always getting’ my 30. It doesn’t always mean that much, though. Some guys play smoked up. It’s hard to find a good run these days.”
Mason talks vaguely about returning to college, but seems to know that the chances are slim. He’d love to find a job with a future, “something I like, and where I won’t get laid off.” With five or six more inches, he said, “I’d be in the pros. I know it. I could hang with Pooh and all those guys in high school. I still can.”
Philadelphia, of course, has produced an astounding number of NBA performers: Wilt Chamberlain, Earl Monroe, Paul Arizin, Guy Rodgers, Tom Gola, Chink Scott, Ernie Beck, Walt Hazzard. . .
To the people in the city’s ever-clannish neighborhoods, however, big-time reps mean only one thing: Unless you prove your ability here, to us, on our asphalt, with trash being talked in your ears, it’s just a mirage. You may have made it, they opine, but we’ve got 10 more who could or should have, and they’re dying to bust your ass.
With that in mind, a 5-foot-8 guard named Jimmy “Tee” Parham stood as tall as anyone from the mid-1950s through the 1960s. Parham, a deadly jump shooter who never played college ball, yet starred in the industrial leagues, once scored 45 points for the old Northeast High. “I felt good . . . until I found out Wilt scored 90 for Overbrook,” Parham remembered. “I didn’t have an answer for that.”
In the mid-1970s, the brightest stars on the Philly schoolboy scene were Gene Banks, Lewis Lloyd, and Michael Brooks. All three went on to the NBA. All three were torched by Bobby “Bobbo” Leach. He was 6-foot-2. They were 6-foot-6 minimum. “Gene, Lewis, Mike. Bobby Leach wore ‘em all out,” said James Flint, who formally directed leagues in West and Southwest Philly. “He could out-and-out play.”
Alas, Leach also followed his buddies’ bad examples. By 1973, he’d been sent to the Youth Development Center in suburban Cornwells Heights because of his involvement in “robberies, shootings, stabbings—the usual stuff that comes out of being in a gang.”
Leach’s play at the YDC was spellbinding. “In some games, by the third quarter, the other team would be spectators on the floor,” said principal Wally Hinson. “If Bobby had gone on to college, he would have been strictly All-American.”
In a rec center game, according to legend, Leach collected 52 points and 28 rebounds against Lloyd and several other All-City bigwigs. Said Leach, wistfully: “If things had gone right, I could have followed those other fellas into the NBA. Definitely. There’s no doubt about it.”
For playground legends, there never is.
On cracked driveways, in asphalt parking lots, in icy backyards with irregular dimensions, Detroiters have played basketball. Yet, except by word of mouth, the stories of the great and near-great players mostly have gone untold.
Detroit legends go way back, to the days of Sammy Gee, the first Black player drafted out of high school by a professional sports team (Brooklyn Dodgers) in 1947, and Bobby Joe Hill, the Highland Park scoring wizard who dominated the city’s Eastside playgrounds.
More recently, Detroit has had its share of NBA greats—George Gervin, Dave DeBusschere, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Spencer Haywood—but never did the masters of hardwood come close to dethroning the kings of the asphalt—guys with names like “Chain” and “Superman.”
At least according to lore.
“This boy named Roland Bricks refused to leave the playground to play high school,” said Terry Watson, head coach of Detroit’s Southwestern High. “Nobody could beat him one-on-one. Not [Detroit Piston Dave] Bing, not Gervin, Hot Haywood. Nobody. He never played high school ball.”
Down through the years, playground basketball around Detroit has metamorphosed into playtime basketball. Gone is respect for the halfcourt game, passing, and team discipline. The only similarities remaining are the rules: “No blood, no foul” in playing up to 12 by ones.
The city’s Southside playgrounds, particularly Pewok and Palmer parks, have been the breeding grounds. Detroiters Kevin Willis, Derrick Coleman, and Grant Long may strut their stuff for NBA millions, but Jimmy Walker, Curtis Jones, John Mayberry, Sammy Tubbs, Freddie Prime, Ralph Simpson, and Noah Brown make up the top-tier of playground legends. The co-captains are:
Sammy Gee. No basketball player in Detroit history dominated like the late 5-foot-7 Sammy Gee. Blessed with great quickness, the versatile forward was the first All-American high school player in Michigan, and the first Detroiter to play for the Globetrotters (1947). Gee was an Isiah Thomas-type, always catapulting teammates to new levels. “Sammie was the main reason we became the first team in the nation to use the fullcourt press,” said Wil Robinson, Detroit Pistons assistant general manager and long-time Miller High coach, who coached Gee there: “We had a small team, but his tremendous quickness alone made the press unbearable.”
Curtis Jones. He was Magic before Magic Johnson. Before briefly joining the Globetrotters, he led Northwestern in points and assists his senior season. “I swear that boy had eyes in the back of his head,” Watson said. “He was awesome. One time I saw him make a pass behind his head, taking three defenders with him.”
But the 5-foot-10 Jones couldn’t pass his classes in the late 1960s. Academic disabilities led to his demise in college and on the playgrounds. He had a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s and today is believed to be one of Detroit’s homeless.
Cliff Williams. “Chain” was a 6-foot-3 Michael Jordan-type without the air game. Anything Michael can do—outside of dunking—Chain could do. “Everybody knew him in Detroit,” Watson said. “That boy was devastating. He was known for the three-point shot before the three-point shot.”
He learned the game—and earned a nickname—shooting a deflated basketball into chain nets common among Detroit playgrounds in the 1960s, “I didn’t care if it didn’t bounce as long as I had a ball,” William said. “It was never too hot or too cold for me to practice. I played in knee-deep snow from sun-up to sun-down.”
His reputation for shooting was cemented when the Southwestern star, on his way to a public-school record 63-point game against Chadsey, began bombing away from halfcourt. “It got to the point where I could almost score with my eyes closed,” he said. “It was like I was on the floor by myself.”
He was impossible to defend, displaying textbook accuracy in everything he did: bank shots, hook shots, jump shots. Sometimes, he’d take on five players at once. “A few times I lost, but usually I beat all five guys,” he said. “Few guys could run with me.”
One of them was Detroit Pistons great Dave Bing. Even after ripping his Achilles tendon at Bowling Green in 1965, Williams impressed Bing enough during their playground days to talk the Pistons into giving him a tryout. Although a shadow for his former self, Williams made the team briefly during the 1966-67 season before retiring. He has been a Ford Motor Co. steel worker in Dearborn for almost 22 years but spends his free time teaching “younger guys a thing or two” on the courts at Detroit’s Northwest Activity Center.
George Johnson. Now a Detroit auto worker, the 6-foot-5 Johnson built his reputation as a dunker at River Rouge High in the late 1970s. “He was as good a dunker as they come,” Bing said. “He could deal and dunk on the greatest players at any time.”
A late bloomer, Johnson didn’t start playing until 1975. At that time, he was caught in a transitional period between the fall of the hard-nosed players and the rise of the show-offs. “Some people play to impress, but if I ain’t playing to win, I had no reason to be out there.,” Johnson said. “When I got out to play, you better be ready. If you’re not, I’m going to drop it in your face until you can’t take it anymore.”
There was a bus strike in Washington, D.C., at the time, John Thompson recalls, because he had to walk all the way from his Northeast D.C. home near Benning Road to Randall Playground in the Southwest quadrant of town. Word had gotten around that Elgin Baylor was going to show up, and if that was the case, Thompson and two of his buddies weren’t going to let a little thing like transportation stop them from bearing witness.
Thompson, a man who has it all, thought back to a time when he didn’t. It was the 1950s. There were lots of playground legends in the Capital—more than in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, when you consider D.C. had fewer than 500,000 people in those days—but nobody had come along like Baylor. Nobody, nowhere. “It was a big-time summer game,” Thompson said. “I was in awe. There were three of us. We clung to a fence and gazed at him. We never said a word. There were no words.”
In the years following, other children—sometimes grown men—would stand with their faces pressed to a cyclone fence, elbowing for position to see the playground legend of the day. Some of the most inspirational, like Chicken Breast, Biggy Cunningham, Ollie Johnson, Sleepy Harrison, Wookie Redmond, and Michael “P-Bird” Britt, are unheard of outside Washington, D.C.’s playground subculture.
They played the same pickup games on the same playgrounds, under the same streetlights, as Baylor, Austin Carr, Dave Bing, Kermit Washington, and Adrian Dantley, who more than made names for themselves. Baylor and Bing are already in the Hall of Fame; Dantley likely will follow. In time, former Georgetown forward Michael Graham and Syracuse’s Sherman Douglas will be accepted, through the natural order of things, into the legends’ hall of fame.
Some believe Sleepy Harrison was as good as Baylor. “They called me the best playground player in the city,” he once said, “and I don’t mean to be bragging when I say it.”
Thompson, as much as he was awed by Baylor, has supported that statement. “There wasn’t anyone ever any better. He was great with his body. He’d leave you chasing shadows . . . Nowadays, the kids call it Pearling (after Earl “The Pearl” Monroe). Sleepy was Pearling before the Pearl.”
Harrison went to a small Black school in the South for a short while, then returned to D.C. “I taught John, I taught Dave Bing, and Austin, and a lot of others,” he once said. “We didn’t give them nothing. We made them appreciate losing, so they would know how great it was to win. I guess you could say I was a stepping stone to those guys’ success.”
If D.C. playground basketball is unique in any way, it’s in the fact that Washingtonians not only have been able to sample the expressiveness of their own, they also have had a chance to see the best players from the nine Division I schools in the area—Maryland and Georgetown included—plus a couple of Division II schools.
They might have seen Austin Carr and, say, Len Elmore, who played his college ball at Maryland. Moses Malone would come up from Petersburg, Va. On any given Sunday, “when the guys who had to work all week would play,” as Thompson said, it was difficult to decide where to go: Kelly Miller playground, Luzon, Turkey Thicket, Candy Cane Lane. Ray Leonard, when he wasn’t training for a fight, would show up at Dunbar High School in the early 1980s to watch games on Sunday afternoon.
Perhaps the greatest playground legend of the early 1980s, during the time Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson, and Buck Williams were in town, was P-Bird Britt, a skinny 6-foot-7 swingman from Suffolk, Va., who played for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). He jumped over people for dunks in college games. On breakaways, the entire gymnasium with stand and wait to see what he’d do. He was mesmerizing in the way Julius Erving was, except with more power in his dunks.
Some of the collegians who started elsewhere saw their games truly evolve in Washington, because of its distinctive playground touches. In a halfcourt game played In Chicago, for example, when the defensive team makes the steal, forces a turnover, or grabs a rebound, it has to take the ball back behind the foul line (or, in the case of unline blacktop courts, past an agreed-upon point) to start the possession.
Not in D.C. in the old days. If you grabbed the other team’s missed shot, you could go right back up with it. That, people in Washington are convinced, is why D.C. has produced so many good offensive rebounders, including Malone, Dantley, Curtis Perry, Craig Shelton, and Kermit Washington, who averaged 20 boards per game over his college career. Interestingly enough, none of those men was known as a great leaper.
In New York or Philadelphia, playground basketball has the scent of sweat and car exhaust, the slip-slide sound of sneaker on asphalt, a look that matches the weather—hot, humid, sweaty, close. In Southern California, the scent is locker room, the sound that squeak when sneaker meets wood, the look a bit cooler—more laid-back, more organized, less frenetic.
In Los Angeles, the playground stage is a gym, not asphalt. And more often than not, it exists within the framework of summer leagues that have existed in some form for almost 20 years. Thus, there’s less tradition, less atmosphere, and less recognition.
“It’s not like New York or Philadelphia or Washington,” said George Raveling, the USC basketball coach. “Word doesn’t spread as easily here as it does up and down the Eastern corridor. It’s just two hours from New York to Philadelphia, so it’s easy for guys to be seen and play one another. Someone hears about a gunshooter, they go watch him do this thing, or even test him.”
Even if its history hasn’t been as rich, Los Angeles has its share of legends. Two sagas underscore the reality that not every playground superstar transcends that stage—one about the shooter who had pro talent in high school, yet never played an NBA minute; another about the phenom who had God-given talent, but too much human frailty.
Ray Lewis had the Midas touch. Put the basketball in his hand, and he’d hit a jumper wherever you asked. He had the talent as a kid growing up in Compton, impressing the rats at whatever gym he visited.
“He had the quickest release I ever saw,” said Issy Washington, who has been watching basketball his entire life and runs the summer Slam-n-Jam league. “He could flat-out shoot the ball from anywhere. For a one-on-one playground player, I’d rate him the best.”
“I wrote that Tracy Murray was the best shooter I’d ever seen,” said Mitch Chortkoff, LA’s resident basketball expert among sportswriters, “and Jim Harrick, who Murray plays for (at UCLA), said it was Lewis.”
There are stories of Lewis scoring all his team’s points in a pickup game, of his 30- to 35-foot bombs, which came long before basketball created a three-point line. But the best anecdotes come from later in his basketball life.
After a sensational career in the early 1970s at Verbum Dei High School, he chose Cal State Los Angeles over Cal State Long Beach, then coached by Jerry Tarkanian. As the story goes, Tarkanian, during recruiting, arranged for Lewis to obtain a new car. Lewis then informed Cal State LA coach Bob Miller of Tark’s largesse. Miller reportedly took out a second mortgage on his home to buy Lewis a bigger car. Lewis then drove back to Tark to show him CSLA’s one-upsmanship. Tark smiled, and Lewis attended CSLA.
But only for two seasons. He led the NCAA in scoring in 1974, then went hardship as a first-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers. He negotiated his own contract, for far less money than the 76ers’ other first-rounder, Doug Collins, then proceeded to outplay Collins during a preseason mini-camp. That led him to demand more money. The 76ers balked, and Lewis became a holdout—and still is. He never played a minute of pro ball. As recently as last year, he still could be found in LA gyms, playing pickup ball.
Clifford Allen was a tall (6-foot-10 at the age of 16) phenom who could run, shoot, and rumble under the basket. Washington remembers watching Allen play a summer league game at Dominquez High in Compton. “He glided down the lane, a physical specimen, so smooth, and hung in the air before crashing the ball through the hoop and smashing the backboard. That’s the ultimate. There’s no better way to get a reputation than smashing a backboard . . . Cost me $600.”
“I saw him in a camp in Santa Barbara, and he was one of the best players anyone had ever seen,” said Chortkoff. “His entire reputation was made on what he did in summer ball.”
Allen’s problem was his offcourt reputation. He was a gang member at an age (10) when most kids are watching cartoons. As a result, he was in and out of reform schools, detention centers, and jail for a variety of offenses. He played just one game of high school basketball, for a reform school in Paso Robles, far north of LA.
“The summer he signed with Las Vegas, he came to join a summer league game after being in jail,” said Washington. “He had not picked up a ball in six months. But he walked in the gym, put on a uniform, and against top-flight, college-bound players, scored 30 points with 19 rebounds and 10 assists.”
Allen signed a letter of intent in 1985, but was a non-qualifier and left school a month into the fall semester. He attended three different junior colleges before heading to Florida last fall for a tryout with the CBA team in Pensacola. Before he ever had a chance to dribble, he was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of a 64-year-old guidance counselor. He eventually pleaded no contest to a second-degree murder charge and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
The balance of LA’s legends team—John Williams, Eldridge Hudson, and Joey Johnson—have simpler stories. Williams and Hudson were quite similar: kids big for their age who had tremendous physical skills.
Williams played at inner-city gyms and went on to a glorious prep career at Crenshaw High before college (LSU) and the pros (Washington). “As a high school 10th grader, he had the body of a college upperclassman,” said Raveling.
“He always played with kids older than him because he was big, and it made him better,” said Washington. “And he could do so many things as a guard, even though he looked like a center.”
Hudson was the star of Victoria Park as a kid, a flamboyant player who had great overall skills “and the talk to back it up,” according to Washington. He starred at Banning High before going to UNLV, where he blew out a knee, shattering his dream of playing in the NBA.
“The game came easy for him,” said Raveling, “so much so that you sometimes didn’t think he was playing hard. But he was. He had great individual skill.” Said Chortkoff: “He was the kind of guy who won games for you, even after his knee injury.”
Johnson’s claim to fame was, and is, his jumping ability. The brother of Boston’s Dennis Johnson played out of the San Pedro Boys Club and was dunking by the time he was 10. “He had more hang time than anyone else,” said Washington. But that essentially was his only talent. His high school (Banning) and college (Arizona State) careers were modest.
But Johnson’s still jumping. In early 1990, he won a super slam dunk contest with a jam into a basket 11 feet, 8 inches off the floor. It may not be the kind of basketball “height” kids dream of, but it’s the kind that legends are made of.